Trio of Democrats makes the rounds in leadership bid

The three Democrats vying for an expected opening in House leadership are making the rounds among party caucuses, hoping to build support for their candidacies even though the vacancy may still be 18 months away.

Reps. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.), John Larson (D-Conn.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) all spoke to the Democratic Women’s Working Group on Tuesday to push their bids to succeed Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) as vice chair of the caucus, the House’s fourth-ranking Democrat.

All three have also stumped before the conservative Blue Dog Coalition in recent weeks. Crowley and Schakowsky each met with the Asian-Pacific Caucus, and Crowley has addressed the freshman class.

Schakowsky and Crowley have pulled ahead of Larson in the number of lawmakers publicly supporting them. Crowley has 42 committed to vote for him, Schakowsky has 38, and Larson trails with 17.

Despite the deficit, Larson said he believed that all three candidates were neck-and-neck at this early stage of the race.

“We’re within five votes of one another, with the vast majority of the caucus being uncommitted,” Larson said, noting that Clyburn won his position handily without disclosing the names of supporters. One office has estimated that 90 of the 202 House Democrats are undecided.

The timing of the race depends on when Rep. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) vacates the position of caucus chairman. If Sen. Jon Corzine (D-N.J.) wins his gubernatorial bid in November, he may appoint Menendez to succeed him in the Senate. If that doesn’t happen, Menendez will not leave the third-ranking position until the end of 2006, when term limits kick in. Clyburn is running unopposed to succeed him.

In meetings with members, Schakowsky has been stressing her ties with outside groups that support the Democratic Party.

“One of the unique things about me is the very close relationship I have with many of our constituent groups. … I’m very close to senior citizens organizations, labor organizations and community-based groups. I can bring that kind of inside-outside strategy to our caucus,” Schakowsky said.

Schakowsky has an edge among female members and progressives. She has been working to convince people that she will represent more centrist members of the party as well as liberals.

“I feel that one of the rolls of the vice chair is to make sure all voices are heard at the leadership level,” she said.

Crowley has proposed holding quarterly meetings with caucus groups.

“What a vice chair can do is meet regularly, on a quarterly basis with women, on a quarterly basis with the New Democrats, the CHC, the CBC,” he said, referring to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus. “That’s something I’d like to start.”

“I’m here to enhance what we have already. As one having already delivered red seats to blue seats in New York, I have the ability to transfer that to other races, especially in the South and West.”

Crowley has also proposed increasing the proportion of people of minority background who give presentations at caucus meetings.

In the past three weeks, for example, the caucus has heard from liberal minister Jim Wallis, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni and Jason Furman of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, none of whom represents minority groups.

Larson has stressed his background as president of the Connecticut Senate and as ranking member of the House Administration Committee. He wants to look “at the collective and synergistic strength of the various caucuses and not let people divide us along those lines.”

Both Crowley and Larson are members of the moderate New Democrat Coalition. Crowley and Schakowsky have benefited from strong support in their respective state delegations. Larson has the support of Rep. Rosa DeLauro, the only other House Democrat from Connecticut.

All three candidates lamented that many in the caucus were reluctant to focus on the race with so many more pressing issues at the moment.

Jane Harman (D-Calif.) has jokingly asked several of the candidates why they are “running for student council president.”

“For many, they do think this is awful early,” said Larson. “All three of us are good friends. … Either of my two colleagues would make a great vice chair, so why make a difficult choice early?”